The story below is included in the story collection, U-Haul with Dinosaur. If you’d like to find out more about the book, click here: http://hcolompress.com/mcart/index.cgi?code=3&cat=4
The New World Order
James was home on a visit. He wanted to know why it was if there was a new world order that everything inside him was imploding and exploding and flaring up into a fireball. He wanted to know why he was filled with dread. He tried posing these questions to his father, but his father kept right on polishing the stock of his gun without saying a word. Instead he abruptly held the gun out to James. It hung in the air, glowing in the workshop’s neon light.
It was a rifle, not a gun. This is my rifle, this is my gun, one is for pleasure, one is for fun. Is that how it went? It was like a haze settling down over his mind. But if the words were wrong, the image was still strong, standing at the foot of his bunk at Parris Island in his white boxer shorts and combat boots with his rifle in one hand and his genitals hefted in the other. Fifty men face-to-face at the foot of their bunks, warriors of the old order.
His cock, that was his gun, his fun, and his rifle, that was his pleasure. The pleasure of squeezing off a round and watching it blow a hole as big around as a baseball through the cardboard heart of the dummy that had sprung up from behind a rock on the firing range. The boys from Kentucky in his platoon could blast those dummies away firing from the hip, but James, he always had to bring his rifle to his shoulder and take aim, and even then he often missed. No pleasure in that, he found out in the Agent Orange boonies. The dummies out there shot back, from the hip, as if they were from Kentucky, and they hardly ever missed. James was living proof of that, the ugly scar across his chest, the howling absence of his right arm.
The pleasure of killing, that was it. The word was killing, not pleasure. This is my rifle, this is my gun, one is for killing, the other’s for fun. Now he was onto something. If he could hold his concentration for a tad bit longer than a TV commercial, maybe he could get on a roll and piece it all together, get to the bottom of things.
“Take it,” his father said, holding out the rifle. “It’s a piece of work.”
It wasn’t 1969 anymore, it was 2009, and James was 59 years old. His father was in his 80s and a devotee of the new world order, just as he’d been a devotee of the old. An order’s an order, his father told him when James was a child. An order’s an order and meant to be obeyed. That’s the nature of things, his father had said, explaining to James why his older brother had been napalmed to a crisp on the beach at Anzio.
Anzio? Where was that? All these exotic places blipping through the American collective consciousness and fading away again. Whose older brother? His or his father’s? Someone had died in the Spanish-American War, that much was documented fact.
Just a month earlier a young gas station attendant who was studying computer science nights at the community college had yelled at James in his favorite bar back in Idaho that he was an old fool who didn’t understand anything, that Spain and America had joined forces against Communism way back then, and that’s what the Spanish-American War had been all about, that’s where the Communist thing started. And it only seemed that the Evil Empire had toppled overnight, but it was Vietnam where the tide started to turn and Panama was the coup de grâce and now there was a new threat, now it was Muslims. James just stared at him and then he smashed him up alongside the head with his prosthetic arm and spent a night in jail for assault.
Sometimes when James was high on something, back before he kicked the booze and the pot and the drugstore highs, sometimes he would look at his son and think his son was his younger brother who had been wounded and decorated, and then he would think of his older brother who turned into his father’s older brother, and the dread set in.
He had this recurring dream of a flag-draped coffin filled with the remains of an unknown soldier, and etched into the rim of the coffin lid were the words Made in China. It was back before the days of body bags in the dream, before the new world order that just like that was there one morning when the world woke up.
His father had both arms and both legs and pretty good muscle tone for a man his age. Somehow he’d slipped between the wars, a fact that filled him with bitterness, because he was a crackerjack shot, as good as those boys from Kentucky. He had the right stuff and stood ready to fight for his country even now. He belonged to a fitness spa and had a second wife no older than James. He was a temperate man who drank one cup of coffee in the morning and at night had a single bottle of beer with his meal while watching Fox News. He was clear-headed, not like James, and he remembered everything chronologically. He knew what he believed in and he was willing to die for it. If you got him going he’d let you know that Roosevelt was the start of the problem, he brought in Socialism and drained the country’s resources with welfare. He didn’t want to hear about Watergate and the Iran-Contra thing and all the business about there not being weapons of mass destruction in Iraq when the point was that America was being threatened by terrorists and there were brave, dedicated men both on the battle field and in office who were trying to save the country, and if their methods seemed a little rough, well just look around. What choice do they have? And when James dug into the raw wound of his mind and tossed out some facts about all the lying and corruption, his father just smiled and held his pleasure to the light, sighting down the scoured and ready barrel.
Earlier James had sat on the back porch steps and smoked a hand-rolled cigarette. He could roll and light a cigarette with one hand. He blew the smoke out in a pale jet and imagined it going straight through the gap in the ozone, as if the ozone was a smoke ring and he was blowing a jet of smoke through it like he’d seen Rufus do at the V.A. years earlier where he’d stayed for longer than he liked to remember.
“The human mind and body are amazing things, phenomenally adaptable,” this shrink at the V.A. had told him during one of his weekly sessions. “You’ll find you’ll soon be able to do many things that unimpaired persons can do, and some things you’ll do even better.”
And right there his mind opened up like a gaping hole in the earth and James went toppling down into that howling, grinding gash and didn’t hear another word the shrink said. When the shrink was done talking he knew he had to give the impression he’d been tracking, following every word, because that was the only way he was ever going to get out of there. And so he said, “I know what you mean.”
The shrink stared at him, and James knew he’d made a mistake, but he had no idea what it was, so he went back to the last thing he remembered hearing, about impaired people being able to do stuff unimpaired people couldn’t do, and he said, “Like Rufus, right? I mean, Rufus is blind, but he can blow a smoke ring and then drill a smaller smoke ring right through the middle of it. How many unimpaired people can do that? Except the thing is, Rufus can’t see what he’s done. He needs someone there to tell him. Like, ‘Hey, man! You did it! You drilled that sucker dead center!’ So— how much fun can that be?”
For a long time the music and the drugs carried him, and more than he cared to admit, his wife and his son. But there was something he was barricading himself against, something he sensed but could not bear to confront, something spongy and cloud-like that swirled around him and went in through his eyes and ears and up through his nose like vapor. Something that was dissolving something else inside him that he had no words for, but once it was finally gone, he knew there would be nothing left of him, just a blackness with the faintest hum in it.
It began to happen in the late Eighties, almost twenty years after Nam, the timbers and mud he’d used to shore up his defenses became riddled with stress fractures, there was creaking and moaning, as if his fortification was sinking slowly down into a deep water and the pressure was slowly crushing it.
His temper began to flare, and his wife left him and got a restraining order and then went so fucking far away he had no idea where, she feared for her life, for her son’s life, or so she said. And so he was left in the outback in Idaho in his earth house that he’d built into a hillside, doing things with his one arm and his mounting dread that many an unimpaired person would not have been able to do. He’d dug in, literally, he used to joke about it in the bar before his wife and son left, and then he ceased joking about anything and got into loud altercations with the crazy mix of misfits who were regulars at the bar, other vets and survivalists and an Aryan Nation type or two, they all seemed to share the same dread.
Then the music died, all his Hendrix and Stones tapes and LPs from the Sixties, and no matter how much he drank, all he could do was pass out, there was no release.
And then the Nineties arrived, chronological as clockwork, and someone waved a magic wand and the past got erased. What he had been trying to figure out, process, piece together, suddenly it was as if it had never happened, and all his touchstones were gone. The war shifted to the home front, prison populations soared and little black vans with tinted windows and DARE splashed on their sides in dark red letters began zipping in and out of uptown school yards and men in uniform gave lectures to grade-school children, handed out pamphlets, sold them DARE t-shirts. Restaurants began segregating smokers into rooms without windows and then banning smoking all the way, and people of all ages began working out in health spas. But at the same time the nation went from being the world’s greatest creditor nation to the world’s greatest debtor nation, and while some higher ups looked grim, others got on national television and said relax, it was temporary, there was a bigger picture, there was a new world order coming. And as if to prove it, the entire Eastern Bloc that was the rationale for the industrial/ military complex collapsed without a single shot being fired, and just as quickly there were half a million troops camped in a desert somewhere fighting a computer war, and James froze up and could no longer process any of it. Nam went up his nose like dream vapor, circulated through his brain and came back out his mouth in tirades. And then the Muslims blew up the World Trade Center and the country went to war with terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan and anywhere else they happened to pop up.
And so what was he—estranged? There were tens of thousands living under bridges and on heat vents and in cardboard cities and banks were dipping into trillions of dollars of taxpayer money and the Global Economy was on the verge of collapse. Important men who were experts on the matter got on TV and said that what was going on went way beyond the scope of the average man’s comprehension, but that America was going in strong and coming out victorious, that much you could count on.
It all gelled together inside James’ head into something slushy shot through with an electrical charge, and he began smoking forty cigarettes a day and carrying a thermos of black coffee with him wherever he went, even on the flight from Pocatello to his father’s house in San Diego.
When his father said take it, he took it, and he stood there with the rifle clutched in his only hand. His father stared at him, but his eyes said nothing, and then he took the rifle back and placed it in the gun rack with the other rifles, ran the bolt through the trigger housing of all those weapons and locked it with a padlock.
“Janey should have lunch ready about now,” his father said, and left the workshop, switching off the neons on his way out, leaving James standing there with his heels together in the room gone dim now with low-grade sunlight filtering through the dirty window at the far end of the shop.
When he went inside, Janey and his father were already at the table, eating ham sandwiches on French bread with lettuce and tomatoes and a pickle on the side. His father was drinking a beer, which was unusual for him in the middle of the day, and Janey had a cup of Lipton’s tea with the bag squeezed out on the saucer. Janey smiled at him briefly and then looked back down to her food. James sat across from his father where his place had been set.
“I didn’t know what you wanted to drink,” his father said, “so help yourself to whatever.” And then he snapped open the morning paper that he hadn’t got around to yet.
James looked down at his sandwich and then up at the paper that formed a thin barrier between him and his father. The headline read: Obama sends more troops to Afghanistan.
James looked at his sandwich, but he did not pick it up. He looked up at the newspaper and waited for his father to show his face.
He would sit there and wait for as long as it took.